Outremont and the Federal Reserve: Do Good Things Come in Pairs?

Upon returning from Montreal, where I volunteered for the NDP on by-election night, I discovered that the US Federal Reserve cut interest rates by a whopping half point. I do not have a fully-formed analysis of either Mulcair’s victory or the rate reduction, but would like to kick-off some discussion on this blog.

Mulcair’s win strikes me as an important step toward building a credible, national left-wing alternative to the Harper government. Although some observers may discount the result as a by-election fluke, it will nevertheless cause Quebecers (and other Canadians) to take another look at the NDP.

It is good to see the Federal Reserve taking serious action to shore-up the American economy, rather than obsessing about the phantom inflation threat. One hopes that this example will induce the Bank of Canada to reverse its misguided interest-rate hike. Of course, the risk is that the Bank of Canada will not respond, allowing the narrowed Canada-US interest-rate differential to underpin the Canadian dollar’s excessively rapid rise.


  • Given that you previously endorsed hard-Right columnist Andrew Coyne’s regressive and authoritarian views on accommodating Quebec’s national aspirations within the federation, it doesn’t surprise me that you would read far too much into the Mulcair victory. No pan-Canadian left-wing alternative (to Harper or anyone else) will be possible until the English-Canadian left starts working towards an alliance with our natural allies in the Quebec sovereignist Left. This is a long-term project, but the emergence of Québec Solidaire provides an opening in that direction. Will we seize the opportunity or continue to rely on Liberal renegades such as Mulcair? Recall that Mulcair didn’t raise a peep of protest againt Charest while he was attacking child care, privatizing healthcare, raising tuition fees and imposing austerity on public-sector workers. Why do left-wingers outside Quebec support the sorts of people in Quebec that they would never support in the rest of Canada?

  • Amazing! The conditions gagnantes raised nary a peep from the nationalist left, and yet they are to be construed as the national left’s natural allies? The truth is that even Quebec Solidaire, unless it clearly abandons the notion that Quebec is a nation, can never be anything other than a trojan horse for the decentralist and assimilationist (towards native people) policies that have moved Canadian politics to the right since 1984. A left-wing Mulroney is a contradiction in terms.

  • Matthew Bergbusch’s comment exemplifies almost perfectly the reason why the NDP has not gotten anywhere in Quebec for twenty years. Ever since Ed Broadbent declared in the early 1980s that there would never be any sort of exceptions made for Quebec on any ground, sending the poll numbers there tumbling (I have several friends who were organizing for the NDP in Quebec at the time and they are still bitter about it). There are so many misconceptions packed in the comment that as I write this short introduction, my reply has already reached two pages and I have not even started to address most of them in depth. That’ll have to suffice for now, though, lest I clog the blog’s space with a single comment.

    So here are a few thoughts, tackling issues one by one.

    First of all, there is no need to be a sovereignist to be an assimilationist. Canada’s history provides plenty of example of this: Indian board schools, forbidding French schooling in Ontario in the early 20th century (school tax still goes to the English system by default in most if not all places; to get one’s taxes to the French system one has to fill out a sheet brought home by the kid and sent it back to school the same way – therefore using 6-10 years old twice as an administrative link), the situation in Western Newfoudland’s French communities, where grand parents speak French and kids do, but not there parents, as it was effectively repressed through the school system until at least the 1970s-1980s, etc. In fact, I lived in Massachusetts for a while were I met several descendants of Acadians who had moved there in the first half of the 20th century. None of them spoke French. As I kept asking away, the most common story was that their parents prevented them from learning it so that they would not have a French accent and would not live the discrimination they had to go through and that had been a factor that made New England attractive compared to the Maritimes.

    This is not even to speak of pre-Canadian times where assimilation was the official objectives of the British rulers (Deportation of the Acadians, the Durham report, etc.). Most sovereignists are not assimilationists – though they’d like French to be somehow preserved – as accords such as “La Paix des Braves” with the Crees demonstrate. And this is not only a “pure laine” business: Is Maka Koto a pure laine, to take but one example?

    Second, while there are various tendencies within the sovereignist movement – ranging from the far left represented by the dying breed of old Felquists to the far right, for whom premier Bouchard was as close to a spokesperson as has ever been in power – there is a strong progressive tradition within the movement. Whether one agrees with the notion of nation or not, it would be hard to deny that the Bloc Quebecois has been generally defending progressive views in the Canadian parliament. Duceppe, for one, has spent years promoting gay rights; Pierre Paquette is a former trade unionist, etc. And the unions in Quebec are by and large progressive and sovereignist.

    Third, being in favour of decentralization does not mean one is not progressive. I’ll give one example: Criminal law. In quebec, young offenders are punished less and helped more (with social workers, etc.), and what do you know? The recidivism rate is much lower. In the 1990s, then justice minister Anne McLellan remembered criminal law was federal and through the young offenders act, attacked this way of doing things. By being in the federation, Quebec has had to basically conform to a model that is less effective, less progressive, and contrary to its views. The list could be much longer. There is no shortage of federal programs Quebec has to opt out of in order to provide the level of services it wants (millennium bursaries – the federal plan is based on merit, Quebec’s system on need; day care, maternity/paternity leave in most (all?) contexts, etc.). Why we even have a federal government coming up with these programs outside of its constitutional responsibilities is beyond most Quebecois: More often than not, the programs in Quebec are more generous, but an inordinate amount of time has to be spent negotiating the arrangement between levels of government. And yes, sometimes it works the other way. This simply says that there is no automatic relationship between centralism/one size fits all and progressiveness.

    Coming back to the NDP, here is a cute example: While campaigning in Quebec while she was head of the party, Alexa McDonough promised a national childcare system. She went to some length to argue why it was desirable, would be a social advance, etc. Well apparently, she had not noticed that the provincial program (put there by the PQ) was already more generous than what she was proposing. This illustrate two things: Ms. McDonough and her advisors had no clue about the state of things in Quebec; and the message most Quebecois got once again is that the federal government is not needed in most social areas, except as a money provider (I agree that there may be a scope for tax collection, so there is not too much inter-provincial tax competition, but I would argue the evidence is mixed in that realm).

    This brings me to my fourth and last point. In Quebec, “the government” means the provincial government. That’s the level people identify with and relate to. It has been that way for as long as I cared to look (the Duplessis era), but may have been like that even before. The federal government is viewed as an entity on which Quebecois have no pull, a somewhat foreign body whose presence has to be accommodated. This prevails amongst sovereignists and federalists alike, most of the latter mainly arguing that membership in the federation is a good thing for Quebec as a whole, though the population’s main interface with political power remains in Quebec (and then Quebecois get to send “their” government to talk to the others in Ottawa).

    If the NDP is ever going to get anywhere, it needs to understand the province’s distinctiveness and the fact that the federal government is perceived as irrelevant at best by most Quebecois. In fact, most of my friends who vote conservative do so because they think it is the best way to be left alone, period (I am not arguing this is a representative sample, just an illustration). So the NDP needs to convey that it is not about centralism, but about minimum standards (which can be fairly high) so we can all live together. This would not detract much from most of what it has been arguing for, but would remove the rhetoric of central domination and replace it with one of local autodetermination within a common sensible social framework.

  • First, let me start by saying how much I ordinarily admire Mattieu Dufour’s work and his posts on the PEF (pointed out to me by my brother some weeks ago). However, his comment above has nothing of the cool and incisive reason that he normally displays: it is an emotional response, when what is needed is a little reason over passion and a greater attention to the facts.

    1) The argument that the NDP and the practically unilingual Ed Broadbent – much as I admire him – stood a chance in Quebec in early 1980s is laughable, the sort of grumbling dream that only an NDP organizer could hold to.

    2) My comment about assimilationism was clearly targeted at the NDP. The point I was raising was that simple justice requires that the left should oppose assimilationist policies in Quebec just as much as it does elsewhere. So just as the left decries, say, Tom Flanagan’s view that first nations’ distinctness or nationality should just be ignored (effectively an argument for cultural genocide), it should equally oppose recognizing Quebec’s nationhood, since that effectively includes a territorial component and therefore covers the traditional lands of Quebec’s first nations. If the government of Quebec can get the Cree, and Algonquians, the Inuit, the Huron, the Mohawks, the Innu, the Maliseet, and the Micmacs (etc.) to agree that their traditional and/or treaty lands are part of a Quebec nation, who am I to object? But until such consent is given, it is racist assimilation to decree that they are part of a Quebec nation. Although, there is, of course, a nation québécoise (I would prefer that all Québécois thought of themselves as Canadiens-français, but that is not up to me), that nation corresponds neither to the majority of the territory of the province of Quebec nor to around 40 percent of the population (consisting of Quebec’s anglophone population, the vast majority of ‘allophones’, the 15-20 percent of the population who still consider themselves to be Canadiens-français first, and most first nations people in the province).

    3) I am intrigued by Mr. Dufour’s reaction to the idea that recognition of Quebec as a nation is an assimilationist stance. Rather the dealing with the issue at hand, i.e. whether it is just to declare that Quebec is a nation and to promote greater decentralization, he resorts to an enumeration of assimilationist events in Canada’s past. To be sure, the Durham report, le Grand Dérangement, the effects of the US airforce base in Stephenville etc., were great injustices, but they have little or no bearing on the question under discussion. In fact, Mr. Dufour’s evocation of them smacks more of an emotional response than a reasoned one, as if two wrongs were to make a right. But let us look at the facts: while he rightly touches on a few of the challenges that francophone minorities face in most provinces, he ignores the simple truth that, apart from the efforts of these minorities themselves, the only ally that minority communities have had is the government of Canada. The separatists’ and Bloc Québécois’s record on this subject is abysmal. Some eighteen months ago, the bloc had an opportunity to do something to help minority language communities when Bill S-3 came before parliament. This bill was aimed at strengthening the official languages act by mandating by law that all government departments, federal and provincial, as well as any private groups that serve the public, ensure that official minority language communities thrive and prosper. Of course, the Bloc voted against the bill, as they did not want it applied to minority anglophone groups in Quebec. This clearly was a racist choice: the Bloc was so set on limiting the rights of anglophones that it was willing to facilitate the assimilation of French-language minorities outside Quebec. To talk of “central domination” or “Canadian assimilation” in this context is absurd.

    As for the notion that strengthening the English fact in Quebec would endanger French in the province (a claim which Mr. Dufour has not made but which the Bloc does), the facts say otherwise: as François Vaillancourt and Dominique Lemay have just shown in their August 2007 paper for the C.D. Howe Institute – Laggards No More: the Changed Socioeconomic Status of Francophones in Quebec – “The relative status of francophones within Quebec itself is under no immediate threat, though one might see a relative decline in the socio-economic status of all Quebec workers in the North American context if policymakers fail to address concerns about productivity issues. …the language laws of the 1970s probably played only a small direct role in changing the relative returns to language skills.” And regarding the productivity challenges, Mr. Dufour indicated the proper direction in his recent articles in Le Devoir (see http://www.progressive-economics.ca/index.php?s=dufour).

    4) The Government of Quebec is certainly to be commended for its recent self-government agreements with native groups in the province – i.e. Sanarrutik Agreement, the recent Nunavik Agreement, the Paix des Braves, etc. – just as the BC government is to be commended for the Nisga’a treaty, or the government Newfoundland and Labrador for its self-government agreement with the Labrador Inuit. One has to take the claims of all provincial governments with regard to these treaties with a grain of salt, however. Take the Paix des Braves: the communities to be most effected by the damming of the Rupert River are now deeply opposed to it, especially as it has become evident that crucial environmental impact information was deliberately withheld from them by the government of Quebec. Since the project was agreed to by the Grand Council of the Crees in 2002, as part of the Paix des Braves agreement between the Cree, Government of Quebec and Hydro-Québec, concerns over greater environmental and health impacts, such as mercury contamination equal to that of coal fired power plants, together with increased project costs and reduced power requirements and forecasts by Hydro-Québec, have cast doubt on the need for the project.

    Hydro-Québec concealed a $4.5 billion wind energy alternative proposed by Siemens from commissioners, during environmental impact assessment (EIA) hearings in 2006, despite being required to bring forward all known alternatives. The EIA panel approved the project in a split vote, solely on the basis of economic need being greater than environmental impact, without knowledge of the alternatives. The dissenting commissioner said the environmental consequences were too great to allow the project to proceed. Now, I can’t speak for the Cree, but propose that readers visit: http://www.savetherupert.org. Of course, none of this makes the Government of Quebec any more racist than any other provincial government, but it does put the lie to the notion that the Paix des Braves was all about respecting the Cree’s right to self-government.

    5) The idea that the Bloc is progressive fall away when one looks at its voting record in detail. Not only did they oppose Bill S-3, but, as I mentioned in my previous comment, they actively supported the Conditions Gagnantes, the greatest attack on Quebec’s social infrastructure in history, demonstrating once again that Quebec separatists, when confronted with a choice between social justice and furthering the separatist cause, will always choose separation. If that were all, one could look on the Bloc’s cowardly stand on the Conditions Gagnantes as a mere aberration. But just last February, the Bloc voted down an NDP motion in parliament to “implement a national anti-poverty strategy beginning with the reinstatement of the federal minimum wage to be initially set at $10 per hour.” As NDP MP Yvon Godin Noted, “if the Bloc truly had progressive values and the interests of Quebeckers at heart, it would have stood up with the NDP, not voted with the Conservatives. Today, the Bloc gave up on the fight against poverty.” In addition, the Bloc has determinedly backed the Conservative Party in every confidence vote since the Harperites assumed power, most crucially supporting the 2007 budget, which purported to solve the supposed fiscal imbalance. Yet, as Hugh Mackenzie of the CCPA and the PEF’S own Mark Lee have both shown, the fiscal imbalance – understood as an imbalance between provincial fiscal capacity and provincial program responsibilities – was mainly a problem imposed by the provinces on themselves through destructive tax-cut competition. Not that the Martin and recent Harper cuts have not hurt Canadians, as provinces downloaded the fiscal burden onto communities. Yet the federal cuts are far less damaging than the ongoing race to bottom in public services among provinces that occurred in the absence of the formerly normalizing effect of direct federal intervention. The Bloc gave the citizenry of Quebec merely the crumbs of a one-time federal transfer while simultaneously fuelling the very conditions that are damaging Quebec’s (and other provinces’) social infrastructure. The Bloc is a Conservative outfit with an occasional progressive reflex – rather like Brian Mulroney.

    6) M. Dufour holds to the traditional decentralist view of the constitution that social policy is the exclusive preserve of the provinces. This is an article of faith, not just among Quebec nationalists, but also among Conservatives everywhere in Canada. However, this view is fundamentally mistaken – the Canadian Constitution, as it was written, says just the opposite. It was only through the misinterpretations of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London that the decentralist view was ever given any credence. As Eugene Forsey remarked, the British lords of appeal – none of whom had ever lived in Canada or under a federal form of government – “turned our constitution inside out and upside down.” Indeed, in 1939 the Senate set up a committee to compare the BNA Act with the Judicial Committee’s rulings. It reported that “Many pronouncements of the judicial committee . . . are materially in conflict with … the Act.” Consequently, PM Louis Saint-Laurent amended the BNA Act to end appeals to the British court and make the Canadian Supreme Court our court of last resort – and the doctrine of the federal spending power gradually grew up as a result, to in some measure rehabilitate the powers actually allocated to the federal government under the BNA Act. See http://www.empireclubfoundation.com/details.asp?FT=yes&SpeechID=2144

    7) Putting aside what the Canadian Constitution actually supports, let us turn instead to Mr. Dufour’s strongest argument, that, in terms of actual outcomes, the Quebec model has been more progressive and has better outcomes. Mr. Dufour cites the long list of Quebec successes that we are all aware of, but, even there, he is just arguing from example. Let us think of another set of examples. Healthcare spending: as a La Presse investigation showed just last week, Quebec has the lowest per capital spending on healthcare of any province (that conclusion was based on 2004 data, so most of the blame for that has to put on Parti Québécois). The Quebec correctional system, as the journalist Yves Theriault showed a couple of years ago in his excellent book Tout le monde dehors is, as an organization, “incompétente, aux méthodes de gestion totalement désuètes, souffrant d’un sous-financement chronique” and, if anything, less successful at rehabilitating serious criminals than the federal system (even if that is no great shakes either). Have Quebecois benefited from establishing an entirely separate blood agency? All evidence suggests that the separate Quebec agency is more costly and less effective. Would Quebecois have objected to depending on Canadian Blood Services? Only a nationalist fanatic would say yes. The Outaouais region continues to lose doctors, including twenty-year veterans of the main emergency room in Hull, six of whom have resigned in protest over the last year because of depressed salaries, funding gaps and understaffing. Do you suppose that the populace of the Outaouais would have objected to Federal use of the spending power, or a strengthening of the Canada Health Act, to improve conditions in local hospitals? Or that Montrealers would have been irate had the Government of Canada put up the money to provide Montreal hospitals with PET Scan (Positron Emission Tomography) machines? Presumably Mr. Dufour doesn’t think that the supply of such medical technology should be left merely to the good offices of Finnish hockey players (go Saku!)? The Federal Government has been trying for some time to constrain the emission of pollutants by Quebec municipalities, under the Fisheries Act (to which the province always replies: municipalities are a provincial responsibility). Do you suppose that many Quebecers would have objected to strong Federal standards for municipalities if it meant that they didn’t have to deal with the algues bleues at their favourite swimming spots?

    But the point here is not to run down Quebec’s successes, which are many, but to see whether decentralization works to Quebecois’ advantage. We have, of course, seen a massive downloading of responsibility to the provinces over the last 17 years. Does Mr. Dufour really think that the end of the Canada Assistance Plan, with its detailed constraints on the provinces, was a good thing, that it has made the lives of Québécois better? Because that is what is really implied by all the nationalist rhetoric about getting Ottawa out of the Quebec’s hair in social matters. Has the freedom of the Canada Health and Social Transfer improved matters? Daniel Salée has looked at the question (in “Transformative Politics, the State, and the Politics of Social Change in Quebec” in the anthology Changing Canada) and the answer appears to be a pretty clear: no! According to the CCPA’s EFRU index (Economic Freedom for the Rest of Us), which Salée cites, Quebec’s performance has been average overall, and distinctly sub-average on the employment subindex and the equality/security subindex. He concludes his review of Quebec situation with the conclusion that “Quebec is looking increasingly like a counter-paradigm that has lost touch with the meaning of social change and political transformation.”

    8) Why has the Quebec model lost its vibrancy and effectiveness? In large part because the “counterparadigmatic edge of the Quebec model”, as Salée puts it, was formerly kept well-honed by its competition/collaboration with what one might call, for want of a better expression, the federal or Ottawa paradigm. Instead of the current race to the bottom, we could have the race to the top in social services of the Lévesque-Trudeau years, or better yet the cooperative, pan-Canadian federalism that gave us the Canada Assistance Plan. It was in that context, indeed, that the Quebec model saw its greatest successes. Certainly, Ottawa will make some mistakes, such as McLellan’s error with regard to the Young Offenders Act, which falls directly, as Mr. Dufour points out himself, within Federal jurisdiction. But, in actuality, this sort of mistake is exceedingly rare and does little to undermine the general virtues of a stronger central government and, more important, the creative tension of the federal-provincial dialectic.

    Mr. Dufour may indeed be right that the NDP’s fortunes in Quebec could be bolstered by the support of Quebec separatists; it is clear, however, that any NDP successes could only then come at the cost of worsened conditions for ordinary Québécois and Canadians everywhere. Being in favour of decentralization does mean that you are not progressive! The NDP can gain votes by appealing to the Quebec nationalist vote, or save its soul. And for at least one election, Canadian progressives should vote for the centralist party with the greatest chance of defeating the Harperites.

  • To pick up on Matt’s closing sentence, people have been urging us to vote Liberal “for at least one election” to stop the Conservative (or Reform) Party during every federal campaign that I can remember. The fact that many progressives keep following this advice makes the NDP weaker than it could and should be. If too many people followed this advice, the left-wing alternative would disappear.

  • Thanks for bringing this article to my attention. I am generally a big fan of Jim Laxer. While I agree with much of the article, I am not sure what exactly he is proposing. Laxer writes, “Only if the wider public takes ownership of the upcoming election, the most consequential since the free trade election of 1988, is there any hope of forcing the opposition parties to focus on stopping Harper.”

    No one can object to the public taking ownership of elections, but what does that mean in practice?

    It is also worth remembering that advocates of voting Liberal to stop Harper declared 2004, and then 2006, to be the most important election since 1988. If progressives voted Liberal in every important election, the left-wing alternative provided by the NDP would disappear.

    While Layton appropriately aspires to replace the Liberals as the main alternative to the Conservatives, he has tried to do so since the 2006 campaign by mainly criticizing Harper rather than the Liberals. This strategy of focusing against Harper is what Laxer says he wants. He may also envision some sort of electoral alliance among the opposition parties, but provides no details.

    I disagree with the statement that “Dion would be a moderately progressive prime minister.” So far, he has been worse than Harper on taxes and some other economic issues. Dion is less bad than Harper on important social issues.

    I plan (as usual) to give my time, money and vote to the NDP during the next election. The NDP embodies the anti-Harper philosophy on both economic and social issues, and is running candidates against Conservatives right across the country. After reading Laxer’s article, I am not clear on whether he advocates a different course of action.

  • It is quite clear that Laxer is advocating a different course of action, I should say.

    Roughly speaking, I would say there are two possible alternatives:

    1) NDP voters independently swallow their ire and vote for Liberal candidates wherever they have historically polled ahead of the NDP. (It would be nice for Liberal voters to reciprocate, but this is unlikely to happen, since the Liberals are just as likely to lose votes to the right.)

    2) There is some kind of formal deal between the Liberals and the NDP. For instance, the two parties could each agree not to run candidates against the incumbent MPs of the other party (which would leave a lot more resources for competitions for seats currently held by the Conservatives or that Conservative off-shoot, the Bloc québécois).

    Let me add that I am appalled by the limited ambitions that Erin has for the NDP. Layton’s aspiration to replace the Liberals as the main alternative to the Conservatives is, of course, entirely too limited a goal and poorly reasoned. The NDP’s goal must be to set itself up as the main alternative to the Liberals. This is the only way to move the political spectrum to the left. Any attempt to supplant the Liberals with the NDP will only mean that the NDP will move to the right and effectively BECOME the Liberals. This is, of course, what happened in the UK, with the strange death of the British liberal party. And the result, as Jim Stanford pointed out a few years ago in the Globe and Mail, is a British Labour government that is less progressive than our own mediocre Liberal Party has been.

    Finally, it seems obvious to me that, if strategic voting against the Harperites makes little sense when the Liberals are in power and leading in the polls, it is essential to vote strategically against the Conservatives when THEY are the governing party and leading in the polls. Plus it is just sophistry to claim that Dion is identical to Paul Martin — let alone to arch-neo-conservative Stephen Harper. Just think of each of those three with respect to childcare funding or the environment, and it is pretty clear that Dion, despite his recent unfortunate tax policy announcements, is substantially to the left of either the Martinites (who are actively trying to do him in) or the Harperites.

  • Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful points.

    The two main premises of strategic voting – that the Liberals are substantially better than the Conservatives and that voters are quite familiar with local riding dynamics – are both open to question. However, even if one accepts these premises, there is nothing strategic about voting “for Liberal candidates wherever they have historically polled ahead of the NDP”.

    In ridings that are Liberal-NDP races, it makes strategic sense for the left to vote NDP regardless of whether the Liberals usually win. In ridings that either the Liberals or Conservatives win by wide margins, there is no reason to vote Liberal. Strategic voting could theoretically make sense only in ridings with tight Liberal-Conservative races, a minority of federal ridings. Everywhere else, proponents of strategic voting should endorse the NDP.

    In suggesting that the Labour Party automatically became as centrist as the Liberal Party it displaced, you are skipping over at least half a century of British political history prior to Tony Blair. The relevant Canadian case is the three western provinces in which the Liberals gave way to an NDP-conservative system. (In BC, the conservatives have been called Social Credit or Liberal and, in Saskatchewan, the conservatives are now called the Saskatchewan Party.)

    I have, at times, publicly criticized Saskatchewan’s NDP government for governing more like Liberals than like New Democrats. However, on the whole, politics in BC, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are left of the rest of Canada. Displacing the federal Liberals is a reasonable aspiration.

    On your final point, I am not sure that a comparison of green measures enacted by Dion as Environment Minister and by Harper as Prime Minister would dramatically favour the former.

  • Matthew Bergbusch

    1) The point is that there are a large number of three-way races out there; strategic voting always makes sense when there is a three (or four) way race;

    2) In ridings where there are traditionally very close Conservative-Liberal races, strategic voting makes sense;

    3) In races where, historically, the Liberals have had large leads, and the NDP has been in third place, it makes no sense to erode the Liberals in favour of the Harperites (and that is what risks happening in ridings in certain parts of Quebec, for instance, where a 10 or 15 percent gain for the NDP would destroy a large traditional Liberal majority and put the Harperites in power).

    4) BC, by most measures (look at its national lead in inequality) is far to the right of Ontario or Quebec or the Maritime provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec or Manitoba or Saskatchewan. To the extent that it swings back periodically to a more left-wing NDP, well it is true that is does that on occasion, like every twenty years or so. I should say that BC political culture is very right-wing overall (despite the obvious strength of the NDP, the innovative nature of many BC projects, the strengths of the unions in the interior, the communitarian traditions of the province etc.).

    5) I think it is plainly disingenuous to suggest that Dion is not to the left of Harper. Clearly the guy who got Canada to ratify Kyoto is far more green than Harper, and if the Liberals’ environmental record is awful too, that is mainly, again, because of the influence of the business Liberals, including of course the coal-barging former owner Canada Steamship Lines, the same lot who are trying to pull Dion down. Plus there is a kind of unreality to this whole discussion: I suggest that you talk privately to people employed at Environment Canada and see who they think is more green. The chill that has hit Ottawa, I am told, in terms of active use of the government for any social or environmental policy making or coordination is unlike anything in Canadian history. I believe we are in fact witnessing a silent dismantling through inaction (i.e. just letting programs die) of the federal government that not only rivals but exceeds (federal-provincial transfers aside) the 1995 cuts or even Rhodes’ and Dunnings’ wrong-minded depression era cuts. You cannot seriously think that getting rid of the spending power is good for the Canadian environment, or that any right-wing successor to Dion at the head of the Liberal party would be MORE disposed to act responsibly on the environment.

  • Matt, I do not think that we will resolve these issues anytime soon, but am happy to keep discussing them.

    Presumably, a premise of strategic voting is that Liberals are better than Conservatives and New Democrats are better than Liberals. Clearly, progressives should vote NDP in three-way races. In ridings that Liberals or Conservatives win by wide margins, it makes sense to vote NDP to send a message and because public funding for political parties is based on the popular vote.

    Strategic voting, as presented by you and others, is basically just an appeal to vote Liberal. To have any credibility on the left, a strategic voting strategy would have to be targeted to the minority of ridings that are tight Liberal-Conservative races.

    I agree with your criticism of Martin, but would note that proponents of strategic voting were quite happy to back him in the last two federal elections.

    On BC politics, I would suggest that Dave Barrett led one of the, if not the, most progressive government in Canadian history. Over the past couple of decades, BC has had as many years of NDP government as of conservative government.

  • Many thanks to Mr. Bergbusch for his thoughtful retort to my indeed somewhat heated reply. My emotions there were mostly motivated by what I saw as the exemplification of an attitude that has historically perpetuated the reality of the two solitudes in the progressive camp, something I’ve been trying to fight with my limited means for some time now – on both sides of the border, so to speak… all this out of the belief that constitutional issues should be properly disentangled from social ones.

    In the process of replying to Mr. Bergbusch’s points, it looks like I misinterpreted some of the arguments (though à ma décharge, his original point was very cogently made, without a wealth of details) and pushed too hard in some cases. So here is a more level-headed response.

    Firstly, let me say that I had two main objectives: (1) show that there is mixed evidence on the centralisation cum progressiveness argument (not necessarily argue for the obverse viewpoint); (2) Argue that the NDP could make strides in Québec by being a little less centralist, especially in its rhetoric, and learning a bit more about the dynamics of the political system. That’s what I mean by a minimum standards stance – the NDP would not have to give up on any of its ideals, but would simply acknowledge the province’s ability to do better if it wants. The worst part is that I think most people in the NDP would be fine with that, but it never comes out this way. And we could spend some time talking about moves such as the support of the clarity bill, but as various conversations with my progressive colleagues at Dalhousie University tell me, the interpretation of that law varies so much across Canada that this would run the risk of leading us very far afield.

    Now, on some of the more precise issues…

    1. The Bloc Québécois

    Yes, Mr. Bergbusch is right that there voting record is weird in some instances, but to say that they constantly support the conservatives is simply wrong, as the vote on the last throne speech showed us. Notable is the fact that this vote occurred in a conjuncture where conservative support is on the rise in Québec, so that the Bloc could have taken a big hit during the election. Environment aside, what I hear from their supporters and the people in Ottawa is that they can’t stomach the war anymore, so they were ready to take the chance. Not Mr. Dion, apparently.

    Now I could give more examples of the Bloc being progressive (yes, especially when it does not affect Québec, like the vote on gay marriage (speaking of which, this bill would not have passed withjout the Bloc, if I recall)), but as Mr. Bergbusch rightly points out, a pile of examples does not make an argument. More to the point, I was not trying to defend or promote the Bloc, simply to say that there are many progressive elements in that party (from the former list, I forgot to mention that Duceppe is an old ML) and that I think there is much more scope for cooperation than what is usually asserted.

    2. Le modèle québécois

    Mr. Bergbusch rightly points out that le Mod̬le Qu̩b̩cois is dying a slow and painful death. Some elements in society, such as the student movement, are trying their best to maintain what shreds of it they can (BTW, the last general strike was about student loans and bursaries, which would probably put Mr. Gordon and me on the same side), but they are globally in retreat. (Note that some of the weird elements that remain do give the province an edge if there is an interprovincial competition, such as rent control РI wince every time I see the fact that my rent has doubled between Gatineau and Halifax, while my apartment shrunk.)

    However, I would argue that this does not have much to do with decentralisation or tax competition. The main culprit is the fact that the federal conservative party has had power in the province during the last decade +, first through Lucien Bouchard and co., now with Jean Charest. That’s why Québec Solidaire was born, because several members did not recognize themself anymore in that party. The left-wing of the PQ (like the Aut’ journal group) still stays in out of, well, I don’t know what, but that party is but a shadow of its former self.

    But Outaouais aside, québécois are not very mobile. The language and cultural barriers are very real for most of them. So most of this is self-inflicted, out of the ideological beliefs of provincial premiers and their teams. Ditto with respect to what the government has been doing with healthcare and education system. There is simply no need to embrace PPP’s as they’ve been doing, etc.

    At the same time, the provincial government has been able to blame it on the déséquilibre fiscal, therefore using Canad’s federal nature to implement ideologically motivated cuts. I would argue that they would not have gotten away with a lot of what they did if they did not have the feds to blame, but that is a little besides the point.

    I guess that what I am trying to say is that I agree that Québec is moving right, mostly like the rest of the country, but I don’t think it has much to do with tax competition, which is the main argument for centralism (unless one wants to argue that the federal government is somehow inherently more progressive than provincial governments). Shortly put, I’ll simply restate that I simply don’t see a clear adéquation between decentralism and right wing politics.

    3. Assimilationism

    Here I confess having misunderstood Mr. Bergbusch’s original point, but I’ll still answer sideways, if I may say so.

    I think that one of the nicest thing about the whole sovereignty debate is that it brings forward the vacuity of identity (the latest bout is coming out through this commission going around the province):

    What is a Québécois? What is a Canadian?

    For various reasons, the sovereigntist movement has gone to a territorial position. Yes, this is problematic with respects to the various other groups who inhabit the territory, including inuits, innus, crees, mohawks, etc. Now, I am not sure what would be a better way to go. Surely we would not want to get back to some kind of ethnic definition of Québécois… More importantly, it works the other way as well; the 60 % Mr. Bergbusch alludes to of the Québécois who do not feel Canadian was “assimilated” (coalesced?) with the rest of the people in Canada in 1867, through a deal about which we could talk a long time… though I’ll refrain for now. I’ll simply say that I don’t particularly regard the decisions of the privy council as any less (or more) valid than an agreement that was struck under a colonial situation, by people who were business partners. The recent supreme court decision regarding the health care law in Québec (essentially pushing the government towards a two-tier system, or the use of the notwithstanding clause) well shows that a centralised organisation run by Canadians for Canadians does not necessarily lead to progressive outcomes.

    In any case, should québécois be more sensitive to the other nations they live alongside? sure. Should they be ready to give up some territory? sure. What works for them works for first nations as well. Do most sovereignists agree with me? probably not. That said, I am not sure why First Nations would be worse off negociating with an independent Québec government rather than the federal government.

    A word on partitionism, in passing: The partitionist position is hard to defend, because the people who would get to partition would first get a chance to prevent everybody else from separating, through a provincial referendum. If that was to hold, then we should let the sovereignist regions the right to separate by themselves. This is clearly quite a “basket of crabs”.

    And finally on the issue of identity, it is true that in the 1960’s, Québécois made a strategic retreat unto their province, leaving the rest of the Canadian fait français to fend for itself. The point there was that the Québec francophone elites figured they could prevail in Québec, though they would lose in Canada. So francophones reared their heads in Québec, but let pan-Canadianism go in the process.

    In this way, the term “québécois” was born, really, and French Canadian abandoned. While francophones were formerly united in Canada around their language and their faith, Québécois were now mostly giving up the church and concentrating in promoting French in the province.

    This division holds to this day, which is why most francophones in Québec don’t feel Canadian, let alone French Canadians, even though they are historically the ones who pioneered the use of the word “Canadian”, as the national anthem still shows. This is also why the support offerred by Québec sovereigntists to francophones across the country is worse than dismal, as Mr Bergbusch pointed out.


    Anyway, enough said. I’ll now go back to my cold economist self and return to debunking. But thanks for the comments, Mr Bergbusch, they forced and allowed me to clarify my thoughts.

  • Matthew Bergbusch

    Interesting comments, M. Dufour.

    So the question is:
    Was the NDP not confused, at best, when it voiced its support for Quebec as a nation rather than for the Quebec nation and the other nations within the province of Quebec?

    As for the issue of the ‘Federal Conservative party’ having control in Quebec, this is one and the same as the debate about decentralization. Just a different end of the stick. Nothing has done so much damage to Quebeckers and Canadians than the ‘community of communities’ schtick that the federal conservative party has purveyed for three decades, to the delight of the narrow, parochial elites that predominate in every province of Canada. It does not take a great mind to understand that Canada is made up of many different communities. But saying that social policy and responsibilities should therefore be devolved to the unique responsibility of the provinces just means that you create national ad-hoc-ery in social programs. Well, I think a child should have the same right to proper housing in Verdun as in Red Deer or the North End of Halifax. But everything on the PEF blog, take the TILMA debate, suggests that in the absence of nationally-enforced MINIMUM standards you just get a race to the bottom. Without the federal spending power (limited though it is), there really is no stick at all for providing minimum standards, unjustly weakened as federal powers have been.

  • Matt, there are certainly some solid arguments against the “Quebecois nation” motion. However, the Liberals also voted for it, so this episode hardly justifies supporting the Liberals rather than the NDP.

  • Matthew Bergbusch

    Actually, the NDP said that they would support the Bloc motion, that ‘Quebec is an independent nation’, which the Liberals opposed. The motion that was finally voted in the House recognizes the Québécois nation but not the jurisdiction of Quebec as a nation. And Layton went much further than Dion in his quest for the separatist vote: Dion had the courage to recognize only the ‘sociologic’ nature of ‘Quebec nationhood’.

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